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The Russia-China oil puzzle

The Russia-China oil puzzle

By Philip Zelikow

As announced by Igor Sechin on leaving Beijing, it appears that the Chinese government will loan $25 billion to two giant energy companies controlled by the Russian government. In exchange, the Russian government has pledged to supply 15 million tons of oil to China per year for the next 20 years.

This appears, roughly, to be a pledge of about 2.2 billion barrels of oil, over the next 20 years, in exchange for $25 billion now. Depending on how one calculates the cumulative value of present money, this sounds like a deal worth something in the neighborhood of $20 a barrel. And this would lock in at least about 5 percent of all Russian oil exports just for the Chinese market, at such an effective price. I invite others to share information that contradict or elaborate on these apparent estimates. 

If the United States had used credit to obtain such a long-term commitment of oil on concessionary terms from a debtor (say, one in the Arab world), some of my academic colleagues would be calling this an illustration of informal empire. For anyone with memories of Chinese history of, say, the 1890s (specifically the history of Russian finance in Manchuria, and the Chinese Eastern Railway), this announcement has to bring a smile — at least a smile to some folks in China, who know this history very well indeed.

If these numbers are close to being accurate, this deal is a revealing glimpse into the current state of Russia’s political economy. Again, though, I invite others to refine these crude, initial guesstimates.